Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013 | 9 p.m.
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Most UNLV supporters despise all things UNR, making the Rebels basketball team’s 66-54 victory Tuesday against the visiting Wolf Pack an obvious good thing.
But, how important is beating UNR in basketball? Trust me, home games against New Mexico and San Diego State next month will be more significant — for the players, a good majority of the fans, and most important, in determining the fate of the Rebels’ season.
Remember, Reno is one of the Mountain West Conference’s bottom feeders and UNLV (17-4, 4-2) hasn’t lost to its rivals from the North since 2005, an impressive streak supporters of the scarlet and gray always refer to after losing to UNR each year in the Fremont Cannon football game. (Let’s not talk about the disappointment in blowing a 17-point halftime lead last fall against the Wolf Pack for a record eighth straight loss in the series).
The bottom line is UNLV players won’t have a massive celebration after this win, and playing UNR isn’t a game circled on their calendars. The rivalry only exists for fans, and until UNR somehow figures a way to bring its program to the level of UNLV’s, it will just be another game on the schedule.
Don’t get me wrong, the near sellout crowd was impressive, especially with the anti-Reno chants in the first half, and there was a buzz in the arena when the game was tight. But for San Diego State and New Mexico on Saturday evenings in February, the Mack will be a madhouse.
Here are some observations from the game:
I’m OK with how Bryce Dejean-Jones plays: I know several are convinced Bryce Dejean-Jones’ shoot-first mentality doesn’t fit into the Rebels’ offense, but it shouldn’t be that big of an eye-sore. Yes, there are times when Dejean-Jones takes a contested attempt way too early in the shot clock to frustrate several. But he’s a pure scorer, and aside from likely NBA Draft Lottery pick Anthony Bennett, the Rebels’ most talented player on offense. He has the ability to carry UNLV on his back — the jumper to beat Air Force or dominating against Cal, for instance. Against UNR, he scored 11 points on 4-of-9 attempts, fitting into the flow of the offense with eight rebounds and four assists. Dejean-Jones plays with a chip on his shoulder and he’s not afraid to take the ball to the basket, or to have ball in his hands with the game on the line. While that sometimes equals an ill-advised shot, UNLV should be willing to take the good with the bad.
Good perimeter defense from the Rebels: In UNLV’s last three wins — two weeks ago at San Diego State, last week against Wyoming and Tuesday against UNR — the Rebels have partially won the game with solid perimeter defense. San Diego State made just 3-of-19 attempts on 3-pointers, Wyoming connected on 3-of-16 attempts and UNR was 6-of-23, including 4-of-16 in the first half. Strong defense leads to easy offensive opportunities, and it’s no secret that UNLV is at its best offensively when playing in transition. Justin Hawkins has to be the first mentioned when talking about defensive success. Not only is he UNLV’s best defender, he definitely needs to be in the conversation for the league’s top stopper. His intensity is contagious with teammates, giving UNLV a mindset on defense that is often overlooked by those highlight-reel style plays on offense.
A small improvement at the line. I think: UNLV almost had another disaster at the free throw line at the end of the game, only making 1-of-6 attempts in the final four minutes. Hawkins and Khem Birch each missed two attempts, bringing some minor flashbacks from two weeks ago when the Rebels went just 5-of-17 in the second half in a too-close-for-comfort overtime victory against Air Force. For the game, the Rebels were 14-of-22 from the line — it was a respectable 13-of-16 until the mess at the end. Simply put, missed free throws at any point in the game, especially at the end, is a formula for defeat.